At last, an agreement to save unstable Burgos cathedral is reached

UNESCO threaten to de-list the building if central and regional governments refused to cooperate



After years of inactivity, the Spanish Ministry of Culture, the regional government of Castille and León and the cathedral administration, have at last agreed on a plan to save Burgos cathedral. A public debate inspired by the recent fire at the Liceu opera house in Barcelona, and threats that unesco would remove the cathedral from its list of world heritage monuments, helped concentrate the minds of those concerned.

Work has begun with the erection of scaffolding around the twin towers, and will last about two years. Priority is being given to the spires, which have become dangerously unstable due to traffic vibration. The delicate filigree structures, twenty-five metres tall, were built in the fifteenth century by Juan de Colonia. The stonework showed signs of deterioration as early as 1692, when repairs were first carried out. The Pta 150 million (£739,000; $1.1 million) now needed to restore the spires is being provided by the Ministry for the north tower, and by the regional government for its more seriously eroded twin.

The Ministry will also find the Pta15 million required to restore the cathedral’s crenellated parapets, while it falls to the regional authorities to prevent water seepage in the lower cloister and to restore Felipe de Vigarny’s reliefs on the stonework of the apse. The cathedral will take charge of restoring Arnao de Flandes’s sixteenth-century stained glass windows, at a cost of around Pta25 million, and, according to Ramón del Hoyo, its chairman, “is considering the possibility of restoring a virtually unknown collection of Hispano-Flemish paintings”.

Collaboration between the national and regional authorities will also result in a master plan essential for identifying problems, establishing priorities and coordinating the various tasks. A specialist committee, under the leadership of architects Dionisio Hernández Gil and Pío García Escudero, will be making an archaeological, historical, architectural and chemical survey of the fabric of the cathedral, the site on which it stands and the quarry which supplies the building stone.

According to Ramón del Hoyo, “The main objective is to find a solution to crumbling of the stonework, caused by excessive humidity in the soil and a high concentration of mineral salts. The colonies of bacteria, lichens and fungi which thrive in these conditions are devouring the façade of one of the finest examples of the Spanish gothic style”.

Meanwhile, for the last two years the Geology Department of Oviedo University has been monitoring the effects of noise and atmospheric pollution, changes in temperature, traffic vibration and the thousands of tourists who visit the cathedral. Expert opinion, according to del Hoyo again, is that, though serious, the damage is not irreversible, as only certain limited areas are affected. His optimism is partly motivated by the success of public and private initiatives to generate a fund of some Pta1000 million (£4.9 million; $7.4 million), the interest from which would be sufficient to cover on-going conservation. Since September 1975, the Ministry of Culture has financed all restoration work, spending over £1.7 million ($2.5 million).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'At last, an agreement to save the cathedral'